“Ron, I feel there’s something I should warn you about.”
I bit my lip as I drove, frowning out the windshield. The dark of the evening zipped by in a blur of passing street lights.
“Yeah? What’s that?”
I could hear the amusement in his voice and didn’t have to look at the tall, red-haired man buckled into the passenger seat of the car I’d rented to imagine his expression.
“It’s just that…” I wasn’t sure how to say it, but given that we were already more than halfway to the reunion, my window of opportunity was closing. I sighed. “Well…I have a big family.”
Ron laughed, a deep, bellowing, infectious sound that reverberated through the car and drew a begrudging smile from my lips, despite my consternation.
“Come off it, Mione. You’re worried that I'm not equipped to handle a big family?”
“I knew you were going to react like this,” I fretted, shaking my head. “It’s different. You have a big, loving, immediate family, a fact about you that I will envy until the day I die, by the way, but I have-”
“Us,” he interrupted me, his tone so firm I could see the determined set of his jaw in my mind’s eye. “You have us, Hermione. We are your big, loving, immediate family.”
My cheeks flushed and I risked taking my eyes off the road for long enough to shoot him a grateful smile.
“That’s sweet, Ron, but I’m trying to tell you something.”
“Ah, yes, don’t let me break that Granger concentration.” He stretched his arm behind my driver’s side headrest and leaned into his seat. “Tell me about your big family.”
“That’s just it, you’ve only ever met my parents. They're the tip of the iceberg. My dad has ninety first-cousins, Ron. Ninety! Both his parents had double-digit siblings and every one of them had or has at least five children.”
“Wow,” he whistled. “Talk about a Granger concentration.”
“Ron, this isn’t funny!” But I was laughing as he raised his eyebrows. “This reunion is going to be hundreds of people, some of us distantly related, and plenty of plus-ones, most of whom I’ve never actually met.”
“Hmm.” He rubbed a hand along his jaw, where he’d grown a lean, auburn beard. “Sounds more manageable in some ways, doesn’t it? We won’t be forced into small talk with a great auntie if we don’t want to. It’ll be easier to avoid people.”
“True,” I allowed, pleased that he was cottoning on. “It’s a large group of Muggles though. We’ll have to be careful not to accidentally mention magic.”
“Right. Do any of them know that you’re a witch?”
“Only my parents. All my cousins believe I went to boarding school in Scotland.”
He snorted. “Well, that part is true, at least.”
“And you already know about my Nan.” I’d always been a nervous rambler, and I was on a roll now, letting my anxieties flow out of me. “She’s tough and kind of snobby. I told her I’d bring my boyfriend to this six months ago and she will not let it go.”
“Really? Why’s that?”
I took my time to answer, flipping on the indicator and slowing to a cautious speed to take the exit ramp.
“She says she wants us to ‘represent her’ to the rest of the family, which I think just means she wants to show off around her siblings.” I tsked, venting my frustration. “Apparently, a single woman in her late twenties is something to be ashamed of. When I tried to tell her I would be coming alone, after…you know, David…”
I laughed, thankful that he’d lightened the mood as I blinked the brief sting from my eyes.
“Anyway, Nan had a proper fit, so I…well, when she said ‘Hermione Jean don’t you dare tell me you’ve lost another boyfriend,’ I panicked and answered ‘of course not’ which is preposterous to begin with because it isn’t as though I have a long ledger of ex-boyfriends to tout about and-”
“So.” Ron mulled on the syllable, and my babbling died in my throat. “How long does she think we’ve been dating?”
I paused, glancing at him. My stomach fluttered as I answered. “A year.”
“Does she think my name is David?”
“No, I never told her his name.”
“Thank Merlin for small miracles.” His leg jiggled as he looked out the window. “This is really what you were trying to warn me about, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” I whispered.
To my great surprise, he turned and beamed at me. “There you go, lying to authority figures again, Mione. When will you ever learn?”
“I do not lie to authority figures!”
When he caught sight of my face, which must have reflected the scandal I felt, Ron’s contagious laugh filled the small interior of the car. His hand, still on the headrest of my seat, twirled one of the loose curls at my neck for a moment. The graze of his fingers against my skin sent a shiver down my spine. He cleared his throat and patted me on the shoulder before withdrawing his hand back to his side of the car.
“I am delighted to be your stand-in boyfriend, Hermione Granger.”
“Erm, thank you.”
It was an odd, intense kind of moment, but that was nothing new. Ron and I’s entire history was full of these kinds of moments. I’d always felt that we toed the line between friendship and something more, but after all these years, neither of us made a move. I’d concluded long ago that we were just one of those flirty friendships that never progressed to anything else.
“You could have told me about this sooner, you know.” Ron interrupted my thoughts. “When you asked me to come with you.”
“I meant to, but Harry was there and I was flustered.”
“Flustered.” His eyes seemed to burn holes in the side of my head, and, feeling my cheeks heat, I stared resolutely out the windshield, not meeting his eye. “Interesting.”
“We’ll be there in ten minutes.” I winced at the shrillness of my voice. “Do you mind looking in my bag for the invitation?”
We pulled into the driveway of a countryside manor hotel, tires crunching against the gravel. The entrance led around a magnificent fountain, where I joined a queue of cars waiting for the valet, admiring the perfectly maintained, rolling green lawns and precisely sculpted hedges growing in neat lines.
I parked in front of the building, stepping out of the car and gazing up at the manor with wide eyes. It was built of aged taupe stone and boasted over thirty windows along the imperial flat facade of its front. Its gable roof was highlighted with various hues of grey and black, intersected by a pointed peak that stretched above the grand entrance in the centre.
I tore my eyes from the ornate building, freezing at Ron’s proffered arm.
“Oh.” I flapped my hand in an awkward, flustered way. “You really don’t need to-”
“Just getting into character.” He flashed me a disarming smile.
I laughed and, handing my keys to the valet, rested my palm in the crook of Ron’s elbow, letting him escort me inside.
The entire manor had been rented out for my family reunion, so we were greeted by a large sign that explained the events of the night and where to sign in. I endured Ron’s teasing about Grangers and organisation, hushing him and trying to fight the twitch of my lips as we searched for my parents.
We found them deep in conversation with some of Dad’s cousins, and the next hour of dialogue passed pleasantly enough. I sipped my drink and, under the pretence of our fake relationship, allowed myself the luxury of standing closer to Ron than I usually would. He rested his large hand on my lower back as though it were the most natural thing in the world. My heart sped as I smiled at him, earning a subtle wink in return.
While my parents were engaged with a great uncle, he bent to me, his whisper tickling my ear with warm air. “What do they know about our…situation?”
“All of it.” I glanced around, but no one was paying us any attention. “I told my mum I was going to bring you and that Nan thought you were my…my boyfriend.”
I didn’t have to say that word so boldly, meeting his eye right when it slipped past my lips. I didn’t need to wait on bated breath for his reaction, feeling my heart skip when his eyes flashed with something akin to heat. I didn’t have to like it when, in the fraction of a moment, his gaze raked my body from top to bottom, eliciting the thrill of an unfamiliar, though more-than-welcome caress.
But I did.
“Hermione, dear.” My mother’s voice made me jump, and I whirled about, finding her beaming at me. “You and Ron should enter!”
I tried to keep my voice calm as I answered. “Enter what, Mum?”
“The game, Hermione, the game. Your Uncle was just telling us about it.”
Before I could object, the group ushered us to a booth, pressed nametags to our chests, and left us standing in a queue of a few dozen people. As my parents disappeared into the audience, I scanned the makeshift stage, where an emcee stood next to two stools. A sandwich board boasted the words “Newlywed Game” in bright scarlet.
“Oh no.” I clutched Ron’s arm, shaking my head. “Oh no, oh no. Ron, let’s sneak away quick-”
At once the emcee began talking. The small crowd laughed and cheered, and after our names were announced I knew it was too late to leave. I shifted my weight from foot to foot.
“What’s wrong?” Ron asked in a quiet voice.
I groaned. “It’s the Newlywed Game.”
“Newlyweds?” His eyes widened. “As in married? But I’m…we’re not-”
“We don’t have to be married.” I pushed aside the instinct to overanalyze his panicked reaction. “It’s a game that tests how well couples know each other.”
“Oh.” We watched as the first couple sat on the stools. “But,” Ron said, “I thought your parents knew this wasn’t real?”
He paled, and the queue ambled forward a few metres. Ever the nervous rambler, I spoke in a quiet exhale of whispers, translating the emcee’s long-winded version of the rules.
“It sounds like we’re not going to play the whole game as there are way too many people registered.” I stood on my tiptoes; the first couple, smiling and waving, left the area as the second couple took their seats in the stools facing each other. “We just have to answer one question each about the other and they’ll let us go.”
He let out a deep breath. “Okay, that doesn’t sound too bad.”
The emcee handed one of the participants a whiteboard, and a distressing thought occurred to me.
“Ron,” I dropped my voice as quietly as I could. “Have you ever used a dry-erase marker?”
By the time it was our turn, my palms were sweating with nerves. I lowered myself onto the stool, accepting the small whiteboard and marker. I met my mum’s eye in the crowd and was surprised when she returned my glare with a self-satisfied grin.
“Let’s start with Hermione,” the emcee said, drawing my attention back to himself. “We’ll have you write your answer first.”
I nodded and pulled the cap off the marker.
“What was the first car that Ron drove?”
I froze for a moment, cursing our luck. Of course, the question was about something so Muggle-centric that Ron would have no idea what to say. I frowned, but upon meeting Ron’s eyes, which were full of mischievous light, I cracked a grin and scribbled the answer. The emcee snatched the board from my fingers the moment I was done, turning to Ron with enthusiasm.
“Ready for you, Ron.”
“That’s easy,” he said. “A powder blue Ford Anglia.”
The emcee used a small hammer to hit a bell, and a high-pitched ping rang through the space.
“That’s right!” the emcee shouted. “Though your dearest here added a bit more information.” The crowd laughed and cheered as he showcased the board:
He “borrowed” a Ford Anglia from his dad when he was twelve.
Once he read it, Ron pulled a face at me and I stuck my tongue out in return. His grin made my cheeks flush.
“You’re up.” The emcee handed the whiteboard to Ron, who doubtfully pulled the cap off the marker.
“What is Hermione’s favourite book?”
The first slow strokes seemed to ease Ron’s uncertainty that the Muggle invention would work, and when his eyes lit up and he began to scribble with enthusiasm, I had to bite my lip to keep from smiling.
He handed the board proudly to the emcee who, after reading it, laughed aloud. I cocked my head to the side, shooting Ron a questioning glance. He shrugged a dismissive shoulder.
“We have Ron’s answer,” the emcee said. “Hermione, tell us, what is your favourite book?”
“Ron and I met at a boarding school in Scotland,” I said. “The school is in this old castle, so ancient that it has its own history book. So my answer is the school’s history book.”
“Ron said you would say that,” the emcee exclaimed, delighted that I'd taken the bait. “But he also said that’s not your real favourite.”
“What?” I gaped at him. Behind the emcee, Ron smirked.
“What’s your actual favourite book, Hermione?” the emcee pressed.
There was no way that Ron knew the answer to this, but, put on the spot, I was unable to think of anything else. I decided to go with the truth. It’d be worth it just to wipe that smug, lopsided smile from his face.
The emcee hit the bell and flipped the board around to show the crowd, which met him with enthusiastic cheers and applause. I was aching with curiosity, impatient to read Ron’s answer. When the emcee finally showed me, there, written plain as day in his untidy scrawl:
She’ll say it’s the book about the history of the school where we met, but it’s actually Wuthering Heights .
I blinked at it a few times, shocked to my core. How on earth could Ron possibly know that?
Our entertainment value no longer useful to him, the emcee ushered us off the stools to make room for the next couple. Before Ron could find my parents in the crowd, I slipped an arm through his and directed him away.
“C’mon, let’s go get a drink.”
“What about your mum and dad?”
“I’m not feeling particularly charitable towards them at the moment.”
Ron laughed and obliged, letting me lead him to a bar where I stuffed a bill into the tip jar and ordered wine. My anxiety lessened after a few sips of the Merlot, and we strolled together through the milling crowds and many booths of games and raffles.
“So,” I ventured, “Wuthering Heights?”
“Don’t act surprised that I know.” He nudged my shoulder with his own. “If I had a Galleon for every time you left that old, battered copy of yours lying around the common room, I’d be a rich man. I even looked up Emily Bronte in the library one day, which is how I figured out it was a Muggle novel.”
My heart fluttered at this admission, and I couldn’t fight the smile that seemed to come from deep in my stomach.
“You…researched Emily Bronte?”
“Yeah, well.” The back of his neck flushed a deep red. “I don’t think we were speaking at the time.”
“Then why bother?”
He cleared his throat and drained the last of his wine glass, nodding at the live band playing by a crowded dance floor in one of the corners. “Shall we?”
“Shall we what?”
He rolled his eyes and extended a hand to me. “Dance, Hermione. You don’t need to go to the library to have heard of it.”
I tried to suppress the cascade of emotion that the last several minutes had unleashed on me, putting my half-empty glass down and accepting Ron’s hand. He squeezed my fingers and pulled me onto the dance floor as the music quieted to a gentle ballad.
His touch seemed to burn on my waist, though we kept a proper distance between us. I wasn’t able to meet his eyes while standing so close to him, so I stared over his shoulder instead.
“I still have that copy of Wuthering Heights, you know.”
“I know.” His answer shocked me into looking up at him. “It’s on that bookshelf below your bay windows.”
“Keeping tabs on me, Weasley?”
A peal of familiar giggles interrupted the moment, making me blush. My reaction must have tipped Ron off because he glanced behind me suspiciously.
“Sophia,” I whispered. “My cousin.”
We rotated on the spot as we danced, and sure enough, I saw the raven-haired girl, in the arms of her date, glancing at me and cackling.
Ron frowned. “Why does she make you so tense?”
“We were very competitive growing up. We’re about the same age, and we both did well in school. Sophia always had a boyfriend though, and I never did, so it became her favourite point of comparison between us. That was part of the reason that I was looking forward to bringing my boyfriend tonight, but…”
My throat constricted. The breakup hadn’t been exactly mutual, though in hindsight I could admit that David had been right in ending it. I didn’t want to date him anymore, I could honestly say that, but I missed the companionship.
“He was an idiot.”
I smiled weakly, touched by Ron’s loyalty. “No, he wasn’t, he just-”
“He was a fucking idiot, Hermione.” His voice held so much conviction that I almost believed him. “You deserve much better than him. Besides,” Ron squeezed my hand, smiling. “You’re allowed to not like your exes, you know. You don’t always need to be so diplomatic. Emotions are irrational.”
Sophia’s loud laughter rolled over us again, and I closed my eyes, trying to block out the offensive sound.
“Sorry,” I murmured. “I know you’re right. You’re just catching me in an insecure moment. I’ve outgrown caring what my cousin thinks, and you’re dead-on about David: he was a prat.”
Ron beamed at me. “That’s my girl.”
“I know it shouldn’t matter.” I sighed. “It just would have been nice to come out on top for once, you know?”
“What am I, then? She doesn’t know about our little ruse anymore than your Nan.”
Ron released his hold on me and lifted our clasped hands, spinning me twice. Our movements were jerky, but when he wrapped his arm around my waist, pulling me closer to him to resume our ungraceful shuffle, I was breathless and laughing.
I met his eyes, allowing myself to be drawn into whirlpools of bright blue. His long nose almost touched mine, and a small smile played on his lips in perfect parallel to the skipping of my heartbeat.
“How do you do that?” I whispered.
“Make me feel better.” I searched his face, and the air between us seemed to grow thicker. “How do you always know how to make me feel better?”
He shrugged, a red flush creeping up his neck. Feeling brave, I pressed a brief kiss to his cheek, relishing in the feeling of his beard brushing against my skin.
“Thank you.” It was an understatement for how grateful I was that he’d come with me tonight, but that was all that my heavy tongue was able to manage.
He nodded, his nose brushing against mine. I licked my lips, and his gaze jumped down to my mouth. I don’t know what possessed me to speak again, but the words formed as though someone had enchanted them out of me.
“We might need to play our parts a little more convincingly.” His grip around my waist tightened, pulling my hips closer. Warmth spread through my body.
“Is that right?” His voice was husky, and I shivered.
“My Nan could be anywhere,” I said. “We need to keep up appearances.”
He looked at me like I was his last meal, and it made my pulse race so wildly I thought I was in danger of passing out. He dropped my hand and tilted my chin with a gentle finger.
“No doubt in my mind.”
And he kissed me.
Ron was kissing me, and I didn’t know if it was him, or the wine, or the fact that Sophia’s smug giggling died away instantly, but I’d never felt such an explosion of fireworks in my chest.
I left my eyes closed as he pulled away, processing this exchange. That was…amazing. Did I know that I’d wanted to do that so much? It seemed obvious only in hindsight. Did he know how good he was at that? He must, right? I couldn’t believe a kiss could leave me so speechless.
My eyes fluttered open. He was watching me as though waiting for my reaction. I wound my fingers firmly through his gorgeous red locks and pulled his lips back to mine, relishing in the taste of wine on his tongue and the feeling of his large hand on my waist.
We broke apart again, panting as we stared at each other. Finally, in a voice much more shrill than I’d care to admit, I spoke.
“Want to get some air?”
He nodded, managing a strangled grunting noise. Cheeks burning, I turned on my heel and strode away, needing a bit of space. I opened the balcony doors, relishing in the cool breeze rolling over my flushed skin, and leaned against the railing to overlook the sprawling lawns. I’d left the doors open, so the lights and sounds of the party followed me into the night.
It was all for show, I supposed. The snog. Ron was trying to make me feel better about my cousin and we’d simply been caught up in the moment. Friends helped each other out, that’s all. Besides, it was easy to fall into the natural habits of what couples do after spending most of the evening pretending to be one.
Ron joined me, propping his forearms on the railing. He’d rolled up his dress shirt sleeves to expose his freckled and scarred skin, and I was tempted to trace patterns along his arms. When I met his eyes, all coherent thoughts fled my brain and we stared at each other, letting the weight of everything unsaid hang between us.
A warbled, stern voice carried from inside the doors. “I think I saw my granddaughter heading this way. Let’s see if we can meet that young man.”
It was my Nan, I’d know her voice anywhere. I couldn’t deal with her. Not here. Not now.
I grabbed Ron by the front of his shirt and pushed him behind a row of potted topiaries, just managing to hide before a group of elderly ladies walked through the door frame. They cast long shadows over the grounds as they strolled onto the balcony.
“Where is she?” My Nan, the tallest of them, pointed a gnarled finger at the space. “I saw her come this way!”
“I saw them too, Hattie.” A squat woman in a large purple hat nodded, tutting. “I dare say they’ve disappeared right from under our noses.”
“Come, let’s get out of the cold,” Nan said, herding her friends inside. “Did I tell you she’s been dating that charming young man for a year now?”
The door clicked shut behind them, dampening the noise of the party and cutting the light instantly. I breathed a sigh, relieved to have avoided the need to discuss Ron with my overbearing grandmother.
“Did you say what I think you said?”
Ron’s gentle whisper against my cheek drew my attention to how close we were. In order to stay in the shadows, I’d sandwiched him between myself and the wall. Our torsos pressed together and his arms wrapped around my waist, I could count his every pale eyelash.
“What do you think I said?”
“You said it!”
I’d forgotten that, but the rumblings of laughter vibrating from his chest drove logic from my mind.
Friends stood like this, together under the starlight, right? To escape grandmothers, and sometimes even for several minutes after said grandmother was long gone? Making eye contact that seemed to betray thoughts never verbalised, grinning at each other like idiots?
Ron’s happy expression faltered, as though he knew what I’d been thinking about.
“Why didn’t you ask Harry?”
I blinked. “What do you mean?”
“To come with you tonight, why didn’t you ask Harry? He was the obvious choice.” Ron’s fingers twitched on my back. “He’s better at Muggle stuff than me.”
“I…I don’t know, I guess.”
“Or Justin,” Ron prodded. “He’s Muggle-born and I know you see him at work quite a bit. Why not ask him? Why me?”
I was at a loss for words. The questions bounced around in my skull, shaking loose an answer I wasn’t entirely sure I was prepared to acknowledge.
“Why did you look up Emily Bronte?”
He didn’t seem at all confused by the query, instead pulling me a fraction closer. We continued our silent standoff, each waiting for the other to answer, until a bitter gust of wind made me shiver.
“Look at you; you’re cold.” Ron rubbed his palms on my arms, trying to warm me. “Let’s go inside.”
The rest of the evening passed in a blur, a colourful montage of forced conversation that I wasn’t able to focus on or enjoy. Thoughts of Ron and our kiss were all-consuming, and my brain, usually so disciplined, whirled with the implications.
It was in this state that I found myself standing next to the exit, waiting for Ron to get the coats and the valet to pull the car around, and hugging my dad goodbye.
“Tell Mum I’ll see her next weekend.”
“She’ll be pleased to hear it.” We leaned against the wall, watching the light of the fountain in the centre of the gravel driveway glint off the flowing water.
“Bring Ron with you too, if you want.” I glanced at my father in surprise. “Your mother would love to see him.”
“Sure, I’ll let Ginny and Harry know as well.”
“If you like.”
I snuck another look at him, though he continued to gaze out over the babbling fountain.
“We’re just friends, you know, right?” I ventured. “I mean, I told Mum about my, erm, fib to Nan.”
“Yeah, I heard about that.”
A knowing smile was working on his lips, infuriating me to no end. He reserved this expression for when he understood something I didn’t, which was my single biggest pet peeve.
“What, Dad? Just say it.”
“I’m just saying that Ron’s invited, should you want to bring him.”
He laughed at my expression and pulled me into another hug, going inside as Ron hurried out with the coats. I shrugged mine on and took the keys from the valet.
The car ride home was silent as I mulled over the events of the night. Though Ron glanced at me a few times, he didn’t say anything to interrupt my thoughts, which I appreciated. He always understood when I needed time to process.
We pulled into the small, gated car lot behind his flat. I turned off the engine and spun in my seat as much as I could to look at him.
“I have a hypothesis.”
“Do you?” He smiled, looking almost exasperated, and my heart pounded erratically. I halfway wanted to skip out on telling him, but I forced myself to say the words that’d been circling my mind.
“It’s the same answer, isn’t it?”
“Is what the same answer?”
“To all the questions. Why do you know where my favourite copy of Wuthering Heights is? Why did I ask you to be my fake boyfriend? Why did we,” I paused, my cheeks heating, “snog tonight? The answer to all those questions is the same.”
He took a deep breath, extending a shaking hand across the centre console to grip mine. “I reckon they might be.”
I stared down at his long fingers, graceful and freckled, intertwined in my own much shorter ones. This was a big, scary step, wasn’t it? I didn’t want to risk our friendship, which I cherished above all else, if it wasn’t the real thing.
“I can see that brilliant brain of yours at work.” Ron squeezed my hand, recapturing my attention. “You’ve been thinking since we got in the car.”
“I’ve been connecting patterns.” I shook my head, knowing that I sounded insane. “I just mean, this is a huge deal, and I don’t want to risk losing you over an impulse. I want to be sure I have the…the data to back it up.”
He chuckled. “Data, huh?”
I expected him to be annoyed with me, or to roll his eyes, but instead, I recognized fondness in his lopsided smile.
“You’re pretty amazing, you know that?”
My blush deepened and I squeezed his hand. “Most people find me annoying.”
He grinned, then leaned towards me, tugging on my arm to pull me to him. He cupped my face with his free hand, brushing my cheek with his thumb. I sighed, leaning into his touch. He moved closer to me, and my breathing hitched.
“What are you doing?”
He grinned, inches from my face, gaze flicking to my lips. “Giving you another data point.”
“But there’s no one here to see it.”
“S’okay.” He brushed his lips against mine, so gentle I wasn’t sure it’d happened. “This one’s just for us.”
I’d never known a kiss to be so emotional. We moved against each other in a fervent blaze of longing and familiarity. Something shifted in my mind, the categorizations of Ron and our relationship changing fundamentally so that my life would never be the same again.
This time when we broke apart, beaming, I admired the flush of his skin and swell of his lips, pleased to have been the person to make him look that way.
“Do you want to come upstairs?” Still breathing hard, he rubbed his bearded jaw.
“Trying to get me into bed already, Weasley?”
“I don’t mean for…we can do as much or as little as you want.” He ran his fingers through his hair, looking mortified.
I laughed, buoyed by the elation that filled me, so happy I was sure nothing could bring me down.
“I can make us some tea,” he continued. “And we can talk, or whatever. We can do anything you want, Mione. I just want to be with you.”
I grabbed his shirt, bringing him crashing back to my lips for another snog, feeling a pulse of excitement when he responded with a guttural growl.
Leaning back, I grinned at him. “Let’s start with a little, and see where it goes.”